Iraq: La Politique du Pire

19 August 2003

Iraq: La Politique du Pire

By Gwynne Dyer

United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan is outraged. US President George W. Bush makes his usual clumsy attempt to paint the Iraqi resistance as just another bunch of ‘terrorists’, and to link them with some worldwide conspiracy of terrorists who attack the United States because “they hate freedom”. All the usual suspects express their shock that the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad has been bombed. And you wonder: can they really be surprised?

To adapt Bill Clinton’s famous phrase: it’s a war, stupid. In the first phase of the war, cluster bombs were the weapon of choice, and so the United States won. Now we have moved into the phase where the dominant weapon is the truck bomb, and that levels the playing field. A classic guerilla war is taking shape in Iraq, and such wars are a contest not of technology but of will.

In this sort of struggle guerillas have several inbuilt advantages. They are at home, among friends and relatives, with all the local knowledge (starting with language) that the foreign troops lack. They can wrap themselves in the local flag (or increasingly, in the case of the non-Baathist resistance in Iraq, in the green banner of Islam), options that are simply unavailable to the occupying forces. And there is something more: the occupiers have to build; the resistance only has to destroy.

There is a key concept of revolutionary guerilla warfare which has, oddly, no standard translation in English: ‘la politique du pire’. Literally, it is the strategy of (making things) worse. The idea is that the guerillas, who lack the military strength to beat their opponents in open battle, should concentrate instead on destroying the structures and services on which the population depends.

If their attacks and sabotage make the lives of ordinary people awful, the people will not blame the guerillas. They will blame the authorities whose duty it is to provide those structures and services — the occupation authorities, in this case. This is already happening in Iraq, where the failure of the US forces to restore power and water four months after the fall of Baghdad contrasts sharply with Saddam Hussein’s rapid restoration of essential services after the heavy bombing of the 1991 Gulf War.

In this context, attacks on infrastructure like the recent bombings of oil and water pipelines make perfect sense. The wholesale looting of copper cable that is the largest single reason for the US failure to restore electricity supplies in Iraq is mostly a freelance activity undertaken for profit, but certainly the resistance forces have no objection. And the bombing of the UN headquarters will not be unpopular in Iraq either.

Iraqis who watched their once-comfortable living standards collapse over the past twelve years under the impact of UN sanctions have a rather different perspective on that organisation than the rest of the world. Saddam Hussein’s regime brought those sanctions upon itself by its invasion of Kuwait in 1990, but since Iraqis never chose Saddam in any meaningful sense they feel no blame for that crime — and they certainly bore the punishment. The Iraqi resistance does not discredit itself at home by attacking the UN.

On the contrary, it furthers its principal strategic goal, which is to demonstrate that the US cannot bring even security and prosperity to Iraq, let alone democracy. The US is already having immense difficulty in persuading other countries to send troops to Iraq to share the burden of the occupation, because in addition to their original misgivings about the wisdom and legality of the invasion they now have to worry about a significant toll of casualties. All the more is this true of international organisations.

For all the rhetoric that ricochets around Washington about building democracy in Iraq like the US and its allies built German and Japanese democracy after World War Two, this is an administration that does everything on the cheap, and there is no Marshall Plan in the offing. On the contrary, the Bush administration was hoping to pay much of the cost of the occupation out of Iraqi oil exports (which is why pipelines are being attacked), and to unload a lot more onto the UN and the alphabet soup of humanitarian aid organisations that generally follow in its wake.

It was never likely that the UN would let itself be used in that way: the mistrust of US motives and tactics goes too deep in a lot of the members. But Iraqi guerillas are not up on the latest intrigues in the Security Council, so to them it makes sense to bomb the UN’s headquarters in Baghdad. And the bombing is also meant to tell all the international aid organisations that they are vulnerable to attack and to scare them off: exactly what the ‘politique du pire’ is all about.

The US-backed ‘contras’ in Nicaragua followed this strategy, as did the Viet Cong in Vietnam and the FLN in Algeria, and it worked for all of them. It did not work, on the other hand, for the Montoneros in Argentina, the IRA in Northern Ireland, or the New People’s Army in the Philippines. There are no foolproof, one-size-fits-all strategies in guerilla/terrorist campaigns; the specific context always makes a difference. But at the moment, the Iraqi resistance is on a roll.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 6. (“In this sort…destroy”; and “In this context…either”)